Sarah Ingham: It’s time for UK politicians to stop using the armed forces as a backdrop

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the war continues. As the leadership candidates unleashed a volley of misguided blue-on-blue attacks that appalled conservative supporters but delighted their political opponents, it was easy to forget the fierce fighting east of the Dnieper.

The sorry and bathos-filled end to Boris Johnson’s post as Prime Minister and the ensuing battle to be his successor has made Ukraine the last distant country we know little about. It was unclear which was the biggest weapon of mass distraction: the 40.3 degrees in Coningsby or the 31 votes for Tom Tugendhat.

Who knows, but if the last days of heat wave had arrived two weeks ago, the hysteria of the media could have focused on the rise of the mercury in our thermometers rather than on the wandering hands of Chris Pincher.

Whether Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss end up winning, the bin on the new prime minister’s desk in Number Ten will overflow. At the top of the pile will be inflation hovering around ten percent and the cost of living crisis, both of which stem from the self-inflicted disaster of the lockdown – that dog that has yet to sigh, let alone bark, in the leadership race.

Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine is further weakening Europe’s fragile post-lockdown economies. Raw materials have become the Kremlin’s favorite weapons of war. As Russia gradually restricts gas, oil and coal supplies to Europe over the coming months, it may well strangle industrial production. Its blockade of the Black Sea has cut off grain supplies to Ukraine, the world’s fifth-largest supplier of wheat.

Vladimir Putin may well have taken to heart Vladimir Lenin’s maxim that every society is three meals away from chaos, or MI5’s reported opinion that Britain is four meals away from anarchy. While the 2010 Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa was triggered by high food prices, Moscow has a destabilization plan.

On Wednesday, the European Commission unveiled its emergency gas rationing plan, demanding that its member states reduce their energy consumption by 15%. Ursula von der Leyen, Commission President and former German Defense Minister, complained that “Russia is blackmailing us”.

(After eliciting condescending smiles from a German delegation in 2018 when he warned them not to depend on Russian energy supplies, Donald Trump enjoys the last laugh, especially when checking the exchange rate $/€.)

After repelling the Russian invaders from the outskirts of kyiv, Ukrainian forces appear to have locked themselves in the attrition race to reclaim territory lost since February in the south and east of the country. Reports from the front lines are conflicting, with little clarity on who could possibly win.

Two weeks ago, the first units of Ukrainian soldiers arrived in the UK for enhanced training. Around 10,000 people are expected to be trained over the next few months at sites across Britain, “using the world-class expertise of the British military”, according to Ben Wallace.

Europe’s first state-to-state war since 1945 – possibly leading to yet more economic and political upheaval across the continent – should be a matter of grave concern for anyone aspiring to become prime minister.

Instead, we were recently treated to a military cosplay. Truss, the Thatcher tribute act, in a tank; Johnson on a ride in a Phantom jet. Then supporters of Penny Mordaunt – which was published the same day as broadcaster Dan Snow and a Labor adviser – suggesting that as an honorary captain of the Royal Naval Reserve she can command a warship, whose most will mistakenly deduce an aircraft carrier.

Who else played fashionable bingo to liven up the lengths of the two leadership debates? Was your pen about to cross out ‘tax cuts’, ‘service’, ‘military service’, ‘report to work’, ‘ready to serve’, ‘ready to lead’, ‘front line’ and ‘my country’ ?

It is time for all members of Parliament to stop using the armed forces as props. It’s natural for politicians to want to take advantage of the public’s goodwill toward military personnel, but they should keep in mind that the current respect for the military is a historical anomaly. This was directly related to the few who undertook any form of military service and the admiration for those who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Old-school sit-com series and comedy movies such as Dad’s Army (1968-77), The Army Game (1957-61), Carry on Sergeant (1958), and Private’s Progress (1956) cannot be made today. Their stench of “casual racism, homophobia, white privilege, colonialism, transphobia, bullying, misogyny and sexual harassment”, identified by Mordaunt in his review of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-81), is indeed unacceptable.

Equally crucial, the millions of people who fought in World War II or who were national servicemen are disappearing. And with them goes not only mass first-hand military experience, but also an irreverence for the Forces and their “white and bull”.

Britain’s armed forces have grown ever smaller, from 871,000 in 1952, coinciding with the Korean War, to 179,000 in 2012, following Coalition defense cuts. Today, their workforce is about 159,000. Successive governments have decimated them, while praising their philosophy.

After VE Day 1945, in a message to all ranks, Dame Leslie Whateley, Director of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, told the 200,000 women under her command:

“You have already proven that you know the true meaning of service, ‘An act done for the benefit of a cause and not necessarily for the benefit of an individual.'”

Just as Clement Attlee tried to balance the demands of the fledgling National Health Service with the National Service, there are choices to be made between welfare or war.

The example of erased public service has been given for 70 years by the Commander-in-Chief of the Services. In these perilous times of war in Europe, MPs would do well to avoid giving the impression that they view British forces primarily as a backdrop.